Five things I learned from the revised and expanded paperback edition of Tales From Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made? by David Hughes:
Read the last Popdose on the cult behind the comic Nancy.
It’s a goddam miracle that any movie, good or bad, ever gets made at all. A feature film can fall apart at literally any point in the intricate process of its making and marketing. You might think that a Ridley Scott thriller with Robert Redford in the lead would be bulletproof—but Hughes details how The Hot Zone came to pieces literally days before the start of filming. A movie is a creature as delicate as Tinkerbell. If it is to survive, everybody involved must believe in it. A momentary wavering of faith, a withdrawal of financing, and a project dies.
Everybody is in awe of Paul Verhoeven. The Dutch director’s movies are lurid trash, but they’re self-aware trash—which in Hollywood makes him some kind of genius. Much is made of Verhoeven’s doctorate degree in mathematics, and of the fact that he’ll spend a long time polishing a script to his satisfaction—then shoot it word for word, which is practically unprecedented.
Don’t believe anybody when they say it’s “just business.” It’s personal, all right. Ego is necessary for creativity—but you’d think that in Hollywood, where the screenwriter’s job is a revolving door, you might find basic standards of professional detachment. Not so, says Hughes—bad blood comes with the business.
He cites a proposed adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s comic book The Sandman, which burned through dozens of drafts—each seemingly worse than the last—until Gaiman publicly expressed his unhappiness with the whole process, leading to a furious backlash from the project’s latest screenwriter William Farmer: “If any of you are waiting for Mr. Gaiman’s esoteric ‘opus’ to arriveon screen intact, forget it,” he said, claiming, essentially, that he knew better than Gaiman himself how a Sandman movie should work.
Farmer has since cast himself as a victim of studio pressure—“Rather than do what you’re told, you’re far better off doing what you believe is best,” he says in an interview with Hughes. “Had I done that with Sandman...at least I would have kept my personal dignity intact.” And yet, years after the fact, he still feels compelled to note that he found the source material “very imaginative, but undisciplined, as comics often are,” before adding, with perfect lack of irony, “I don’t mean that to be condescending.”
Most of the stupid artistic decisions in Hollywood are made out of guilt and insecurity. Producers and executives are paid a ridiculous amount of money, given how much impact their work has on a film’s profitability. On some level they understand the obscenity of this, and so they strive to justify their salaries by getting involved with the creative side—offering “suggestions” that amount to mandates.
Hollywood executives are hardly alone in this, of course. Politicians are forever introducing pointless legislation simply because they want to be seen as Doing Something about the Problems of Today. See, for instance, the Florida mayor who issued a proclamation prohibiting Satan from setting foot in her little town—or, for that matter, recent calls for laws banning insider stock trading by members of Congress, even though insider trading is already illegal, regardless of who does it.
To the sorry canon of projects scuttled when money men insist on indulging their creative whims—think of Kevin Smith’s script for Superman Returns, famously shot down when Smith couldn’t accommodate producer Jon Peters’ request to add giant spiders—Hughes adds the story of a screenwriter fired from the Planet of the Apes revamp for failing to include a scene of the hero teaching the apes how to play baseball. In another anecdote, a producer buys a script about a monster loose on a futuristic underground train, on the condition that it be given the utterly unrelated title Isobar—simply because he liked the sound of the word. “He wanted the name,” the screenwriter shrugged, “so it had to be made to work”—logic be damned.
Hollywood doesn’t mind if you hate a movie, so long as you understand it. William Goldman’s famous dictum that “Nobody knows anything” gets to the heart of the terrible collision of Art and Commerce, in which Art must always give way. Films are expensive to make, and there are no guarantees as to which films will turn a profit. Quite naturally, the financiers cling to formulas that promise to take the uncertainty out of the process. Remakes, re-imaginings and adaptations mean that movies arrive presold; the three-act structure dictates that every story be told the same way. More than anything, producers live in fear of any idea that cannot be expressed with absolute literalism and absolute clarity—of anything that might require an audience to work too hard.
There’s a telling comment from director John Boorman in a chapter on the various failed attempts to bring The Lord of the Rings to the screen. Boorman, who was attached to the project in the early 1970s, talks about the various “unfilmable” aspects of the story: “When Gandalf is vanquished, the text is, ‘He fell beyond time and memory,’ and puzzled about how you put that on film.”
When Peter Jackson finally made the films—nearly three decades later—the sequence that so puzzled Boorman was translated to the screen as a single close-up shot of Gandalf’s face, bathed in blinding white light, accompanied by his narration saying, “I fell out of time and memory.” It is a very effective moment, precisely because Jackson does not attempt literalism, trusting instead in the source material, in the power of language—and most of all in the power of imagination.
Because the evidence suggests that audiences, in fact, love to use their imaginations. Some favorite movies of the last two decades—The Matrix, Inception, Pulp Fiction and Fight Club, to name just a few—have all succeeded precisely because they give audiences the chance to ponder, to engage, to participate; in short, to work, if only a little.
What producers fail to realize, for all their experience and cynicism, is that the art of cinema does not happen wholly on the screen. It happens in an audience’s heads. And so of all the members of the creative team, credited and uncredited, the viewer is the most important of all.
Jack Feerick is critic-at-large for Popdose.